The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness

benjamin_yonghamish In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?

Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.

The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.

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UK Extended Ministerial Offices: on the road to cabinetisation

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In 2015 the Conservative government has approved the creation of five Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs), enabling ministers to recruit more special advisers and temporary civil servants. This development, which has gone unreported by the media, was unearthed by Athanassios Gouglas. In this post he and Marleen Brans explain the background to these developments and put them in comparative context.

On 27 November 2013 the UK government agreed that Secretaries of State and other ministerial heads of departments may appoint an Extended Ministerial Office (EMO). The development was the brainchild of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, and announced in the Cabinet Office report ‘Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On’, which was published in July 2013. It came as a follow up to a June 2013 report commissioned by Francis Maude from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) titled ‘Accountability and Responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service’. The rationale was that British government ministers are significantly under-supported in comparison with other countries, including those within the Westminster administrative tradition. Some media outlets presented the decision as a mini revolution with ministers getting new powers to appoint at their own discretion the civil servants and staff who will work in larger ministerial offices. In view of establishing extended ministerial offices under coalition government executive politics, the question was quickly raised as to whether the UK was moving down the road of establishing a ministerial cabinet system?

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Looking back at the Special Advisers book launch

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Michelle Silongan rounds up the recent launch of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s book on Special Advisers at the Institute for Government.

Last month the Institute for Government hosted the launch for the new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell. This well-attended event opened with a summation of the main findings and recommendations from the Constitution Unit’s eighteen-month study on the role of special advisers.

As Robert Hazell noted at the start of the event, Special Advisers – or ‘spads’ – deserve recognition as a mini profession. However, this recognition demands a better understanding of how to strengthen and develop this resource that ministers and Number 10 have come to rely upon. Through their research, the authors articulate three specific responses for making spads more effective: better recruitment, increased support and skills development.

Spads clearly matter to those who seek their counsel, establishing why and identifying their role within the mechanisms of government, party politics and policy development has been an under-researched area. Mapping the impact of spads can be difficult given their behind-the-scenes nature, but the use of interviews and surveys of former spads across governments from 1979 to today to inform the findings of Special Advisers, making the book a distinctive and important contribution to the field.

Three former spads also took part in the panel, each underscoring the complex balancing of roles spads face in their position. Jo Foster, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg, remarked that when starting out, spads often have ‘zero comprehension of the breadth of the machine and how to navigate it’. However, it is from this starting position that spads would have to emerge as gatekeepers, navigating competing demands. Rather than being drawn into ‘meltdown crises’, for example, Foster noted how she focused on caring on the ‘front of house’ and ‘keeping the show on the road’.

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The latest Special Advisers reshuffle

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A new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell is to be launched tonight at the Institute for Government. In this post, Ben Yong draws on the research conducted for the book to analyse the latest Spads reshuffle.

‘Won’t somebody think of the spads?!’ said one wag following the recent reshuffle. We here at the Constitution Unit (and Hull) have been. We’ve just written a book on spads, gloriously entitled Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter. We’ve spent 18 months looking at special advisers between 1979 and 2013: all 626 of them. We interviewed over 100 people, including almost 40 spads and 30 ministers (both former and current).

As part of this we’ve been looking at the tenure and distribution of spads over time, both within a government and over successive parliamentary terms. So here we present an interim analysis of the last spads reshuffle.*

The first point is turnover. Of the 63 Spads who began in 2010, only 31 remain. Half have left. The majority of the initial batch who remain are connected to ‘the big beasts’ of the government (David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg etc)—or at least, those whose ministers have not been reshuffled out.

But this misses the bigger story. The total number of spads employed by the Coalition between 2010 and 2014 is around 175. In fact, the number of spads who leave has been increasing as time goes on. In 2010 five left; in 2013 around 30 did. This makes sense: spads leave because of reshuffles, exhaustion, wanting to do something new—and getting out while the going is still good. But they must be replaced.

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The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?

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A recent article in the Telegraph was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks.

As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story;[1] first, a ‘revolving door’ implies not merely that spads go to work in a given sector after leaving office but that they also did so before. Second, the article does not examine where Conservative spads head after their time in Whitehall.

On the idea of a revolving door, our project coded the careers of special advisers before and after their time in Whitehall. The data suggest that the idea of a ‘revolving door’ with respect to the non-profit sector is overblown. Rather, of those who worked in the non-profit sector at some point in their career (32% of Labour and 15% of Conservative spads), the vast majority (74%) only joined that sector after leaving Whitehall.

When looking at think tanks, the claims in the Telegraph article are on stronger ground. Labour advisers were again more likely to work in a think tank after leaving Whitehall (15% vs 8% for the Conservatives). Moreover, of those who worked for a think tank at any point in their career, around 30% of Labour did so both before and after their time as a special adviser (the definition of a ‘revolving door’) whilst only 6% of Conservative ones did so.

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Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder

Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression. 

The notion that Special Advisers (“spads”) turned-MPs dominate the Government and Opposition frontbenches appears periodically in the media as exemplifying the rise of ‘career politicians’ and the ‘professionalisation of politics’. A forthcoming book on Special Advisers by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit explores the profession from 1979 to the present government and provides a detailed look into who they are, what they do, and their relationships and interactions with other actors in the political system.

My recent article for Parliamentary Affairs explores the ‘myth’ outlined above: Is it actually the case that Special Advisers invariably go into politics and rise to the top? The answer, in short, is no. Those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are not particularly representative of the wider profession.

Despite the presence of some high profile MPs who were previously Special Advisers (most prominently David Cameron and Ed Miliband), the reality is less straightforward. While it is clear that the Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are generally successful (both in terms of their electoral success and subsequently in being promoted), they are not representative of the wider “spad” group. A more satisfactory explanation is that underlying factors drive a certain type of ambitious, politically minded individual to both become a Special Adviser and stand for Parliament. Those individuals are then in a strong position to draw upon the skills and connections they amassed during their time in Whitehall to further advance their political careers.

Special Advisers as Candidates

In total, around 25% of Conservative (1979-1997) and 10% of Labour (1997-2010) Special Advisers ran for Parliament at some point, with most of them doing so after leaving Whitehall. Whilst high compared to the proportion of other groups in the population, it is not so high in absolute terms. These individuals are somewhat younger than the ‘normal’ Special Adviser, with around 40%  of those standing for Parliament aged under 30 on their on their appointment as a special adviser. Conversely, only 25% of ‘ordinary’ Special Advisers are that young.

Figure 1: Number of special adviser candidates by general election

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This difference might be uninteresting if these ex-Special Advisers took a number of tries to get into Parliament or contested unwinnable seats. However, that is resoundingly not the case; 80% of “spads” (46 individuals) who stood after leaving Whitehall became MPs at some point. For Labour, 18 out of the 21 former Special Advisers who stood for Parliament have won every General Election they contested.

Special Advisers as MPs

Of those Special Advisers-turned-MPs, nearly half have achieved high office as a Secretary of State (or Shadow Secretary of State) at some point in their parliamentary career, with a full 80% achieving the rank of at least Minister of State. This is very different compared to the great mass of MPs who generally remain on the backbenches.

Special Advisers who become MPs tend to skip the established ‘career ladder’ and head straight to the frontbenches; many become Ministers of State without having first served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) or other comparable junior role. They also tend to be very young upon entering government. The data suggest that 17 ex-Special Advisers became (Shadow) Minister of State before their 40th birthday. Compare this to the median parliamentary candidate who is still attempting to be elected to Parliament at that age. This is also not only a Labour phenomenon—rapid promotion of Special Advisers also occurred under Conservative governments. For at least the last thirty years, Special Advisers-turned-MPs have experienced ‘super-charged’ careers in Parliament, outstripping even other types of ‘career politicians’.

On balance, there is clearly some credibility to the dominant narrative about Special Advisers becoming ministers insofar as those who have ministerial office as their goal seem to be quite successful at achieving it. The evidence suggests that having been a Special Adviser is a good signal that an individual is;

  • loyal to the party, and
  • has valuable prior experience with how government works.

Key actors, particularly selection bodies for parliamentary candidates and the party leadership (who may well be their former boss!) may see this as desirable and therefore push for these ex-Special Advisers to be placed in safe seats and promoted rapidly.

Yet, we should be careful to distinguish between those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament from those who do not. It is possible to be critical of the advancement of the first group whilst making a different evaluation about the desirability of the profession of “spads” more broadly. If one thinks this rapid promotion is normatively undesirable, it is a problem for the political parties to solve rather than an issue with Special Advisers writ large.

Note: this post represents the views of the author. It is based upon an article for Parliamentary Affairs which can be found here. It was originally posted on Democratic Audit: http://buff.ly/1frMuPI

Will Ministers want an EMO?

Whitehall has a new acronym – the EMO.  Not some exotic bird, but Extended Ministerial Offices, first announced by Francis Maude in July.  Last week Cabinet Office published guidelines fleshing out the details: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261358/November_-_EMO_Guidance_to_Departments.pdf

EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees.  The main expansion is likely to be in the third category, and the Civil Service Commission have created a new exception to allow recruitment without competition of chosen individuals as temporary civil servants for up to five years.  The previous maximum was two years: the new exception will allow outsiders to be recruited for the whole of a Parliament.

Ministers who want an EMO will need first to agree the mix of staff and the budget with their Permanent Secretary, before seeking the approval of the Prime Minister.  The budget must come within the department’s overall allocation.  The main quality control will come from Cabinet Office and the PM’s Chief of Staff in scrutinising EMO proposals: the PM is unlikely to give this his personal attention.  A few Ministers may go up from two Special Advisers to three.  But the main test will lie with the external appointees: will they be additional cheerleaders, or serious policy experts?  No 10 will be alert to negative headlines (eg The Times 19 November) and may be tight in what they allow through.

There are two twists in the tail for Ministers who want an EMO.  The first is that at least one member of the EMO must focus on implementation, reporting to the Head of the Cabinet Office Implementation Unit. So there is a direct line reporting line from the EMO to the centre on whether the department is meeting its targets.  The second is that requests must include ‘specific proposals for strengthening the offices of junior Ministers … of a different party’.  Where no EMO is planned, junior ministers can put forward their own proposals.  This is primarily to strengthen the support for the dozen Lib Dem junior ministers scattered round Whitehall, who feel isolated and outgunned. But it will require courage for them to go it alone: they must discuss their proposals first with their Secretary of State, who may not want to give the Lib Dems additional firepower.

Will many Ministers want an EMO?  In the remainder of this Parliament that seems unlikely.  Maude will have to have one, to set an example; but only a handful of colleagues may follow.  Energetic Ministers like Gove have already found ways of recruiting additional advisers, and may not want to seek approval from the centre.  And outsiders may be reluctant to sign up for an 18 month passage when the ship is beginning to run out of steam and they may be paid off in 2015.  So the real test will be in the next Parliament.  In an interview with Civil Service World Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office  spokesman Jon Trickett said that he supported the government’s plans for EMOs [link – http://www.civilserviceworld.com/trickett-civil-service-reforms-ad-hoc-with-hectoring-tone/].  But that was off the cuff, in the margins of the Labour party conference; we don’t know Miliband’s views.   If we have another hung Parliament, the future of EMOs might depend not on Francis Maude, but on the Lib Dems carrying his idea into the next government if they hold the balance of power.